The Flaming Lips

Mystery to Me:
Life’s an Infinite Canvas for The Flaming Lips

“You can be creative in almost anything,” says Wayne Coyne, frontman for The Flaming Lips. To prove his point, he describes his view as he calls from his home near Oklahoma City: “I’m looking out in my yard – I’ve painted the trees!” He means he painted designs on the trees, not painted a picture of them. “When I painted them, I thought everybody would do that. But now they’ve been like this for about six years, and I’m the only one.” He laughs, delighted, when asked why he did this: “One day I just decided, ‘I’m going to paint the trees!’ Nobody stopped me!”

But Coyne has an even bigger artistic endeavor to discuss today: on September 11, The Flaming Lips will put out their sixteenth studio album, American Head (Warner Records). Even though he’s been through this process many times before, Coyne is still enthusiastic as he approaches another release date.

“I think it’s even more exciting because you have more experience with it,” Coyne says of this latest album release. “When people say great things, you think, ‘That’s amazing – thank you.’ It makes you feel good, it encourages you and makes you believe in yourself. And you get used to people saying bad things, and you don’t worry about it that much. You always feel like the thing you just created is the new you.”

As with all previous Flaming Lips albums, American Head is filled with the type of off-kilter yet immediately memorable songs that have endeared the band to fans for almost 40 years now. Coyne, long known as one of the most eccentric yet engaging frontpersons in alternative rock, projects a powerful presence with his gentle tenor voice.

Coyne offers his candid opinion about his unconventional yet earnest vocal approach: “I’m not that great of a singer,” he says, “but I try very hard to sing as good as I can. I think that little thing where you can hear me really trying and really wanting it to sound good, that is part of the delivery. That helps [me] sing about these slightly unreachable emotional states of mind.”

Coyne is a master at creating clever but highly unusual lyrics that don’t address the usual song topics. On American Head, even the song titles themselves – such as “Dinosaurs on the Mountain,” “You n Me Sellin’ Weed,” “Flowers of Neptune 6” – make this cryptic approach clear.

Coyne admits that his lyrics can be mystifying, even to him. “You really don’t know what you’re singing about a lot of the time,” he says. “You’re singing stuff, and then you have to go back and piece it together. Lyrics expose a part of you that you wouldn’t quite know is there. I sometimes think if you’re too aware of those things, they would become clumsy and lofty. Hopefully, I’m singing from my heart and not just my mind.”

With his songwriting these days, Coyne says he actually is making an effort to write “something that’s more relatable to the world that I’m part of, as opposed to being in my own little world. I don’t always really know if I’m feeling what everybody else is feeling. I want to feel what everybody else is feeling, for sure.”

Part of this desire to connect with others seems to stem from the fact that Coyne became a husband and father last year. “I think it’s helped me become a better person,” he says. “I’m very, very lucky to be almost 60 years old and have this little baby. Being a father, it really gives your whole life such a value and lets you know, ‘It’s important to do this, and it’s not important to do that.’” Before becoming a parent, Coyne says, “I probably wouldn’t have believed it. I probably would have thought, ‘Yeah, people say all that, but it isn’t true.’ But it really is true how it lets you decide more about what you’re going to spend your time and energy doing.

“I don’t know if I wasted time before, but I think I could be maybe too stubborn and maybe too intense, and care about some things too much and not care about other things enough,” Coyne continues. “So I’m trying to get a better balance of that in my life – and hopefully, because it’s in my life, it will show up in our art and in our music.”

Ultimately, though, Coyne’s greatest inspiration seems to be the creative process itself. “I’m in a great situation where I’m allowed and encouraged to be creative, and that really does feed my energy so I can say, ‘I get to do this, I get to do that! I’ll try this and that!’ Even if you make mistakes, having energy allows you to redo it. I think a lot of people don’t want to take too many risks because they don’t have very much energy. They want to do it once and then go to bed! So they’re not so willing to make as many mistakes. I have more energy, so if I have to redo it 20 times, I don’t care because I love doing it.”

Coyne also says he feels free to experiment with his music because he feels the risk of failure isn’t really a factor. “I’m not working in a hospital. If I make a mistake, it doesn’t mean that someone’s grandmother dies,” he says. “Even if The Flaming Lips make horrible music, so what? In a way, it’s not that big of a deal.”

This laid back attitude wasn’t always the way Coyne operated, though: “When I was younger, I probably would get my way because I was mean and tough, whereas as I’ve gotten older, I do try now to be more fun and polite and patient and care about other people,” he says, adding that this is particularly true when it comes to his bandmates. “I want them to really love doing [music] with me. That works a lot better than commanding people, ‘do this!’ and ‘do that!’ So I try to do everything with love. I know that sounds hokey, but I want everybody involved to be loving it and to care about it and to try their best.”

By now, Coyne has had plenty of time to perfect the way in which The Flaming Lips should function – after all, the band has been part of his life since 1983, when he co-founded the group with his brother, Mark (who was the original lead singer) and they released a self-titled EP that same year. When his brother left the band, Coyne shifted from guitar to lead vocals in time for the band’s first full-length studio album, Hear It Is (1986). He has remained firmly at the helm ever since, with bassist/keyboardist Michael Ivins at his side since day one, and multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd – the other longest-running member– in the mix since 1991.

“I think we’re very lucky that the very first thing that we did in 1983, people really loved, and it encouraged us, like, ‘Good, we’ll keep figuring out how we can make records.’ We would just do anything that allowed us to make yet another record. I think we’re still like that,” Coyne says. That dedication has led to sixteen albums, multi-platinum sales, and three Grammy awards (and six nominations).

This kind of career success was, Coyne says, not something he and his bandmates even considered when The Flaming Lips first began. “None of us thought in 1984 that it’s still going to be going in the year 2020,” he says.

As for what the band members were thinking back then, Coyne says they were initially trying to sound like the classic rock and punk bands they admired, such as The Beatles, The Who, Joy Division, and The Sex Pistols. “We thought we could sound like any of those [bands] – we had a lot of ignorance about what music was,” he says. “So as much as we tried to sound like them, we really couldn’t. I think that’s probably the thing that helped us, is that we really couldn’t copy any groups because we didn’t know how to really play.

“At the beginning of Flaming Lips, none of us were musicians,” Coyne continues. “We were just weirdos doing whatever we would do. Now we have some of the best musicians alive in the group, but that wasn’t the case in the beginning. We were a little bit embarrassed about the way we sounded, but once you know people like it, that relieves you from feeling so insecure about it.”

But even now that he seems to have mastered his craft, Coyne says that music is still gloriously enigmatic for him. “I think music is like a lot of mysteries of life: the more you know about it, the more of a mystery it becomes. I think that’s why we’re so obsessed with it,” he says. “I don’t know why music has such a magic spell over the way our minds have access to emotions, but it really is such a powerful thing. One minute of music can utterly transform you and make you think of things you hadn’t thought before. It opens up emotional things in you that it would be hard for you to open up without the music, probably.”

Now, with American Head, Coyne and his Flaming Lips crew will show the world their latest attempt to unlock music’s mystery. For now, though, Coyne promises to reveal the mystery of his painted trees, vowing to post a photo of them on Instagram as soon as this phone call ends (and he does). “As the years go by, the design will climb up the trees,” he says. “That’s me thinking I’ll still be around 20 years from now. I hope so!” In the coming decades, it will be fascinating to find out where he and his bandmates (and the designs on his trees) will go next.

Photo by George Salisbury.